As a Japanese citizen now living in America, I’m a bit unnerved by this new rule being instituted by Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), the Japanese professional baseball league. In an effort to prevent a mass exodus of talented amateur players from Japan to the United States, the owners of the twelve teams in the NPB have decided to ban any player who chooses to play overseas straight out of high school for three years. For those who go abroad straight out of college or their company team*, the ban would be for two years.
*Quick explanation. In Japan, company teams have their own leagues and it’s taken very seriously. It’s fairly common for men to be hired for a job simply based on his ability to play sports. It’s a bit more than the company-sponsored softball games here in the States.
This whole thing is a reaction to the news that Junichi Tazawa, a 22-year old righty pitcher for Nippon Oil (yes, this is one of those company teams), has decided to forgo playing in the NPB in favor of coming to America in the hopes of making a career in MLB.
Under this new rule, if Tazawa succeeds in signing a contract with a MLB team – which is a near certainty at this point – but fails in his quest to become a big leaguer, he’d be barred from playing professionally in his home country for two years.
Now, excuse the hyperbole, but this is borderline insanity.
Look, I get it. From the NPB’s perspective, this is a matter of “survival”. From Hideo Nomo to Daisuke Matsuzaka, Japanese baseball has been losing its biggest national stars for over a decade now and consequently, fan interest is waning. Television ratings are down as well as attendance, and its becoming more and more difficult for the league to be able to turn a profit.
As someone who began playing and following the game before he even knew that there was a world outside Japan, this decline in popularity bothers me. I want baseball to prosper over there. I feel a sense of pride when I see my countrymen succeeding on the international stage, whether it be as players in MLB or as a national team at the World Baseball Classic or the Olympics. I know that Ichiro can be a jerk who can’t walk to save himself! I don’t care! He’s Ichiro!
But what overrides this sense of national pride and love of baseball is my disdain for this kind of utilitarian nationalism that strikes me as downright immoral. There is absolutely nothing wrong with an 18-year old with incredible baseball skills wanting to challenge himself at the highest level possible, alongside the very same players he idolized from afar. And to get paid to do so. Why should he get punished? Because he wasn’t willing to help a baseball team that he doesn’t even work for turn a profit? Are you kidding me?
I do not like what this says about the NPB. This is not only somewhat fascistic, it’s also potentially short-sighted. I don’t think that this will prevent those who feel strongly about playing in the MLB as soon as possible from crossing the Pacific. And if they do and fail to catch on, they lose two years of development time at the professional level, thus lowering the level of competition in the NPB. They’re shooting themselves in the foot and they’re looking like total bullies in the process. I just don’t see any upside from this at all.